Screens Ecstatic ambiguity

'The Holy Girl' leaves a spa-full of spiritual seekers without answers

Eros and Deus are such close allies that Eros was in fact a Greek god. Mystics such as Saint Teresa of Avila often express spiritual transcendence through orgasmic imagery. "The Song of Songs," the most sensual book of the Bible, is conventionally read as an allegory of communion with God. And the "bridal mysticism" of Sufis, Hindus, and Christians expresses longing for carnal union with the Divine. So it might seem quite natural for a 15-year-old Catholic girl to mistake sexual arousal for a religious awakening. In the opening sequence of The Holy Girl, a pious young woman is giving religious instruction to a group of adolescent girls. "The important thing," she advises, "is always to be prepared for God's call." But the call goes out in enigmatic ways, and the important thing for Amalia (Alche) and the viewer is deciding what to make of ambiguous signs.

Set in a dilapidated Argentinean spa, The Holy Girl leaves viewers free-floating in a sea of questions about God and the meaning of ecstasy.

Amalia lives with her divorced mother, Helena (Morán), in the Hotel Termas, a dilapidated spa in northern Argentina that she runs with her brother, Freddy (Urdapilleta). Though the dreary place holds little appeal for eyes, ears, nose, or throat, a group of otorhinolaryngologists arrives for a conference on their medical specialty. Helena and Freddy stay busy attending to their guests, one of whom is forced to leave after disgraceful behavior with a hotel maid. During a break from professional sessions, another guest, taciturn Dr. Jano (Belloso), wanders into town. A man playing a theremin draws a crowd in front of a music store, and Jano wanders over. As he listens with strangers to the unearthly modulations, Jano presses himself against a nearby female body. When she responds, he disappears down the street. Later, at the hotel, where Helena is becoming attracted to him, Jano discovers that the body he had squeezed against belongs to Helena's daughter, Amalia. Uncertain whether to embrace or chasten him, Amalia pursues the visiting physician. Jano's situation becomes even more complicated when his wife and children arrive at the hotel.

The Holy Girl (La Niña Santa)

Writ. & dir. Lucrecia Martel; feat. Mercedes Morán, Carlos Belloso, Alejandro Urdapilleta, María Alche (R)
Storytellers from Homer to Scorsese have known to intensify their tales by beginning in medias res. Pulled immediately into the middle of things, audiences are forced to accept the imaginary world on its own terms. But what can we make of stories that end in the middle of things? The Holy Girl assembles its characters at the Hotel Termas, sets off dangerous vibrations among them, and then concludes - or, rather, simply stops. The effect is exasperating, as if Lucrecia Martel has failed to fulfill the fundamental responsibility of a writer and director to resolve the plot that she has set in motion. She has thrown her narrative balls into the air but, defying the laws of cinematic gravity, they fail to fall.

The film is stocked with suggestive images: A severed hand is found in the woods; doctors lounge about in a hot mineral pool; a naked man falls off a balcony and survives. "It's a miracle!" Amalia exclaims about the latter. Or is it just good luck? The Holy Girl begins with a question and ends in ellipsis. At the outset, a woman sings: "What is it, Lord, you want of me?"

Neither Martel nor the Lord provides a clear answer. A viewer can presume that the title of the film should be read ironically, yet Alche's lovely ingenue Amalia walks about in a sacred daze. Unlike the iconoclastic provocations of Luis Buñuel, The Holy Girl is so understated that a flustered viewer might wish to follow Helena when she undergoes a hearing exam. We are left, like Amalia, torn between the sacred and the profane, in faint anticipation.


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